Caltech snaps 26-year conference losing streak

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - The end of Caltech's 310-game conference losing streak spanning 26 years was so big, even school president Jean-Lou Chameau rushed the court to celebrate.

A day later, the two old-time scoreboards in tiny Braun Gym remained lit up with the result: Home 46, Visitor 45.

Call it Revenge of the Nerds.

The Division III Beavers beat Occidental College in their season finale Tuesday night, giving Caltech its first Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference victory since Jan. 23, 1985, when the Beavers defeated LaVerne 48-47.

"Superb elation, overwhelming emotion, pride," coach Oliver Eslinger said in describing his feelings Wednesday.

The hero of the game was Ryan Elmquist, who hit the first of two free throws with three seconds left. He missed the second and Occidental snagged the rebound, but a desperation shot from beyond half-court missed.

Elmquist, a senior from Woodbury, Minn., had a game-high 23 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots playing all 40 minutes of his final college game. Todd Cramer added 10 points and seven rebounds as one of two other starters who also played the entire game.

The final buzzer touched off a raucous celebration among the crowd of 387 - a packed house at a school known for its science and engineering prowess. The party continued on campus, with students abandoning their studies for the night.

"It's nice to be able to bring some smiles and celebration to a campus that's very serious about what it does for the world," Eslinger said.

Most of the players are majoring in computer science, chemistry, applied math and mechanical engineering. Elmquist carries a 3.5 GPA in computer science and will work for Google after he graduates in June. Caltech graduates earn an average starting salary of $71,000.

"You're not supposed to be good at basketball if you're smart, and you're not supposed to be smart if you're good at basketball," Cramer said.

Officially known as California Institute of Technology, the private university has 950 undergraduates and tuition costs nearly $35,000. Its alumni and faculty have won the Nobel Prize 31 times and Albert Einstein worked on his Theory of Relativity at Caltech in 1930.

"Everybody comes here for academics," said Cramer, a freshman from Ambler, Pa. "If you come here for basketball, you're going to get a rude awakening on the first exam."

The lone championship banner on the wall of Braun Gym marks Caltech's 1954 conference championship in men's basketball.

Success has been fleeting since then.

In what became a trivia question on the TV game show "Cash Cab," the Beavers snapped a NCAA-record 207-game skid against Division III schools in 2007, beating Bard College of New York. A documentary called "Quantum Hoops" followed the team during the 2005-06 season, when it lost a school-record 25 games, a feat that was repeated last season.

Caltech hadn't won more than one game in any of its previous eight seasons before this year.

"You got to remember the history, but you can't let it bother you," Cramer said.

The Beavers beat Occidental - which President Barack Obama attended for two years - despite shooting 24 percent and hitting a season-low 12 field goals. They made 19 of 25 free throws (Elmquist was 15 of 19) and set a school record for fewest turnovers with five.

"There's a pretty good equation in there someplace," Eslinger said.

Caltech trailed for much of the game, but never by more than eight points. The Beavers were down 45-37 with 4:33 remaining, and outscored Occidental 9-0 to win.

"You really got to believe," said Cramer, who got a high-five from one of the school's Nobel Prize winners and 30 text messages after the game. "Proving people wrong is great."

The Beavers never let themselves get weighed down by the streak, even though opposing fans relished taunting them. Mike Edwards, a sophomore from Canyon Country, Calif., recalled seeing a sign reading, "We're Smart Too."

"We never talked about the conference losing streak," Eslinger said. "Our goal was never to win one game. Our goal is compete in the SCIAC."

After getting blown out by 30 points in most games last season, this year's Beavers were much better. They lost eight conference games by 10 points or less, and had four non-conference victories. Their 5-20 record was the school's best in 15 years.

Along with Elmquist, Cramer and Edwards, the other starters were Collin Murphy, from Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, and Mike Paluchniak of Oostburg, Wis.

Standing amid balloons in the school's colors of orange and white, interim athletic director Julie Levesque smiled.

"They were so close so many times," she said. "We knew it was going to happen, we just didn't know when."

Unlike many of her Division I counterparts, Levesque hasn't had to deal with Caltech athletes ending up on police blotters, lying or cheating.

"When they say they're studying, they're really studying," she said.

With the victory, came some spoils.

Caltech was included in the highlights on ESPN's "Sports Center," while Eslinger has accepted an invitation to join the Washington Generals as a guest coach in their game against the Harlem Globetrotters on Thursday night in Ontario, Calif. The irony isn't lost on him; the Generals haven't beaten the Globetrotters since 1971.

With any luck, the basketball team's success will spread to some of Caltech's other teams.

The baseball team is on a 170-game losing streak overall, and has lost 412 straight conference games. The volleyball team has lost 19 in a row overall, and dropped 154 consecutive conference games.


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